Activate 09: How to Change the World through Technology and the Internet

July 5, 2009

Last Wednesday I went to a different type of conference for me. Normally I focus on keeping up with the technologies that may be relevant in my job (which I find Future of Web Apps good for), but Activate 09 caught my eye. I enjoy listening to Tech Weekly, and have been watching the various Guardian initiatives including their Open Platform API,
and the MPs’ expenses site, built by Simon Willison and his team in an amazing five days. The objective of Activate 09 was really to explore how can we use this technology to make a difference. The event has been covered by the Guardian Activate 09 blog, James Governor, Roo Reynolds, Martin Belam, and Matt McAlister has described what the Guardian was trying to achieve with the event. Roo’s is the kind of post I would hope to have written after deciphering my copious notes. Rather than recounting in detail, this is more of a summary of the bits I felt were interesting or thought-provoking.

Humanity, Technology & The Web

Werner Vogels talked about reducing the risk of launching your site, by using Amazon’s infrastructure, just “in case no-one comes to your party”, and gave plenty of examples including the Facebook app Animoto & Playfish (with 27M users). Livestream has no infrastructure, but on U.S. election night they supported traffic of 40GB/s, and 90,000 concurrent channels.

Arianna Huffington & Werner Vogels at Activate09

Arianna Huffington made some great points: when trying to create reform, raw data by itself cannot be viral [you need a mechanism by which people can process it]. Also, the internet is self-correcting; in the 2008 Election it was much harder for the Republican Party to convince the American public that Obama was an angry black Muslim fundamentalist who wanted to undermine the Constitution. In the Q&A session that followed Arianna suggested that we should aim to combine the best of old media (story telling), with the best of new media. And we should shift the debate from “how to save newspapers” to “how to save journalism”. Intellectual property and licensing came up a couple of times. In his talk, Ed Parsons mentioned that the National Rail app on the iPhone is one of the most expensive because
of the licensing fee that the developers have to pay to ATOC. And in a later session, Tom Watson criticised the Ordnance Survey, saying it was disgraceful that their data was not generally available for geomapping applications. I missed the later session with the Ordnance Survey representative, but understand the somewhat disingenuous argument was used that it doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything because they charge people to licence it.

Politics, Democracy & Public Life

Emily Bell spoke to Thomas Gensemer, whose company Blue Digital built the site behind the Obama campaign. On a crass level, as he put it, they helped to raise 80% of the money for Obama’s campaign. But there was also a customer service angle of the campaign, such that if someone volunteers in Ohio they get an e-mail in 48 hours. He says “If you have a group of supporters, and ask them to do something that has clear tangible benefits, they will do it.” And “Ask yourself: what do I want my supporters to do today? If you can’t answer that, technology is not the answer.”

Adam Afriye, Emily Bell, Thomas Gensemer, Tom Watson

Tom Watson was supportive of the Conservative innovation agenda, as put forward by Adam Afriye. Adam’s talk followed a party line rather more than Tom’s; as well as criticising Ordnance Survey for not making its geodata more widely available, Tom also suggested that we need to have a government where tolerance of failure is accepted; if an initiative doesn’t work, try something else. Tom is very keen to put public data out there, and see what can be done with it. It will be interesting to see how the Tories’ election campaign evolves, as Adam alluded to them using local news sites to spread their messages during the campaign. Thomas Gensemer was not optimistic about the digital aspect of Labour’s campaign: it will be under-resourced, and there isn’t the space between now and then to start listening to the electorate.


Gerry Jackson‘s talk was a story of successes in extreme adversity. Gerry set up the first independent radio station in Zimbabwe, which the government has repeatedly tried to block. Emigrating families leave mobile phones in place to contact their friends and family, and SMS is proving helpful as a means of enabling transparency on what is really happening in Zimbabwe.

Reinventing Heathcare

Jay Parkinson gave an original perspective on healthcare, based on the principles that 65% of doctor pay is overhead (i.e. paperwork), bad behaviour is what kills most Americans, and patients should be in charge of their own health. So he has built a platform,, which puts patients in contact with experts, and has various tools available to support the relationship, e.g. by sending an SMS once a week to check patient details / weight.

The Rules of Civilisation

In the session, “the means of production in the hands of the many; will the internet lead to a rewriting of the rules of civilisation”, William Perrin noted that 19th century laws (on which the UK is largely run) don’t work with 21st century tools. William PerrinHeath noted that we have lots to learn about how we listen, how to achieve measured constructive self-expression, and mutual self-respect; we are now in touch with more people that we disagree with. A number of times throughout the day, the point came up that systems based on secrecy and privacy are harder to maintain when there is more transparency. Tom Steinberg believes we need someone to enforce this transparency. The questions were also posed: Does our educational methodology need to change? Should children be fed knowledge, or (instead) how to locate it? The best person to act as steward on the journey through that system is the person whose data it is; we need personal, portable education records. Tom thought about other ways that we can help people when dealing with government, e.g. when lots of people are doing the same thing at the same time, such as filling in a tax return. Also, would what be the effects of getting many more people to read laws before they are ratified?

How Children Can Self-Organise to Educate Themselves

By the end of the day my brain was fairly full. But I stayed for Sugata Mitra’s fascinating talk on how children who don’t have any other option can self-organise to learn how to use a computer. He covered the same material at TED, which is well worth watching.

Open Data

I came away from this conference feeling rather optimistic about what could be achievable with technology in this country during my lifetime, and impressed by the line-up that the Guardian had put together. The Cabinet Office’s announcement involving Tim Berners-Lee to advise on how to open up non-personal public data was a very positive step; I realise that technology isn’t the answer by itself, but I hope that this government or the Conservatives will take the opportunity to harness the ability of the many talented developers in this country, and give them the tools they need to create useful applications.

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What I’ve Been Doing

July 5, 2009

I’m about to post on the Guardian’s Activate09 conference, and as it’s been a while since I’ve written here, a bit of an update is in order.

For the last 18 months or so I’ve been working at Carphone Warehouse on their CRM application, focusing on performance, and making sure it can do more with less as the number of customers increases. The application (it’s Java-based) seems to be holding up well and I’m probably going to need a new challenge soon.

There have been a few other things going on, like a 3 month home renovation, and the frenetic pace of family life; what free time remains has been spent on a project which plans to do a better job of presenting up to date information about local businesses. It’s an increasingly crowded space for startups, but when I launch, which should be this year, I hope people will find it useful. As part of this I’ve been exploring new languages, including PHP, Ruby and Groovy.